To the small knot of protesters outside the Peepul Centre, a new multimedia, multicultural performance space in Leicester, Tony Blair is already history. Chanting “Bush, Brown, CIA/How many kids did you kill today?” and waving signs describing Blair’s anointed successor as Gordon Brown, War Criminal, they, at least, have moved seamlessly into the new era.
The crowd inside seems less certain. A kaleidoscope of Hindus from Gujarat, Muslims from Bengal, Kashmir and Pakistan, Jains and Sikhs, the women in saris, shalwar kameez and cropped jeans, the men in dhotis, Nehru jackets and well-cut suits, they clap politely as the Emmanuel Gospel Choir sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” By the next census Leicester is expected to be the first British city with a nonwhite majority: The Diwali celebrations here are the largest outside India; Leicester’s Caribbean Carnival is the biggest in Britain after Notting Hill. An appropriate setting, then, for Labour’s first black, Asian and minority ethnic leadership debate. But with Brown now running unopposed for party leader, there won’t be much of a debate. The choir swings into “Oh Happy Day,” then stops abruptly. Apparently it’s too soon to celebrate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer hasn’t yet arrived. Like the rest of Britain, we are all waiting for Gordon Brown.
It’s been a long wait. Ever since Tony Blair’s impending departure was leaked to the Sun last September, Britain has been stuck in the political equivalent of sleep paralysis: The sensory organs are awake and registering distress while the body remains incapable of movement. The nightly news faithfully reports each new combat death in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government issues a White Paper favoring a massive expansion of nuclear power, and the Home Secretary proposes new antiterrorism laws giving police the right to stop and question any member of the public. Yet the predictable outcry–from environmental groups, civil liberties campaigners and British Muslims who already feel under siege–is muted by the sense that it’s all a charade, a faked flourish of power by an administration whose days are numbered.
Though national elections are still probably two years away, Labour has been trailing the Conservatives in the polls for months. Regional and local elections on May 3 were a very loud wake-up call: The party’s results in Wales were the worst in 100 years; in Scotland, Labour lost power for the first time in fifty years. And in council elections in England, Labour’s total was worse than at any time since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. A week later Blair set a firm date for his exit: June 27 Gordon Brown will take over as both party leader and prime minister.
He inherits a party–and a country–transformed almost beyond recognition by the past ten years. Until Tony Blair, no Labour prime minister had ever served two consecutive terms, let alone three. “By having sustained progressive government, which changes the center of gravity in politics, you can build a very different country,” Ed Miliband, a Member of Parliament and key Brown adviser, recently told an audience at the London School of Economics. At the same event Neil Kinnock, who led the party to disastrous defeat in 1992, argued that for the first time in his life there were “widespread expectations of stable, durable affluence” in Britain.